March 12, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
LOS ANGELES - It's a Dawgs kind of day in L.A. At least so far.
The bleary-eyed Huskies awakened Saturday morning to clouds, fog and no sun in Southern California. They then had a 10 a.m. walkthrough practice in a ballroom of their hotel before their mid-afternoon Pac-10 tournament championship game against Arizona.
Plans for a shootround an hour earlier at the Staples Center next door changed when the players got to bed around midnight following their second consecutive late-night win, 69-51 over Oregon.
For those concerned about the short turnaround, this is the exact scenario that played out last year. The resilient Huskies -- a third seed then and now, doubted then and now -- won consecutive night-owl games to advance to a Saturday afternoon title game. That was also against the regular-season conference champion with which UW had split two previous games.
Those Huskies raced past California in a fun, high-intensity, highly skilled game for the league's tournament title - and kept racing all the way into the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament.
Now it's Arizona that is in Washington's way.
"It's sort of seems like last year: Our backs are against the wall, and no one has given up," senior forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning said late Friday night.
"Regardless of whether we are in (the NCAA tournament) or not, we are playing this game to win a ring. I know Arizona won the regular-season title, but this is our ring. It's something we've worked hard to defend, our title."
To do that, Bryan-Amaning needs to avoid the trouble of two quick fouls early that has throttled his last two games. The key to Washington's rally from 13 down and into the lead late last month at Arizona was MBA magically working a pick-and-roll from the foul line with point guard Isaiah Thomas, his former prep school teammate in Connecticut, throughout the second half.
Washington ultimately lost by one at the buzzer when Arizona star Derrick Williams, the Pac-10's player of the year, soared across the lane to swat away two UW shots in the final 3 seconds. That taut 87-86 defeat in a wild, road atmosphere on national television showed perhaps as much as any game this season that the Huskies were worthy of the NCAA tournament.
It also had the Dawgs, who beat the Wildcats 85-68 in Seattle on Jan. 20, looking forward to playing Arizona for a rubber match in a neutral setting.
They get that chance today.
"Definitely, they got us the last time and we want some revenge," said Thomas, who has been wondrous in L.A. -- 31 points and 23 assists while playing 78½ of a possible 80 minutes so far in this tournament. "They're a great team, and we'll be ready for them.
"It's going to be a fun game."
The Huskies had lost two of their final three games - all at home - before arriving here Wednesday. They seem reenergized by a smaller lineup that has made recently mothballed freshman Terrence Ross a starter for the first time this season.
Ross responded Thursday night with 17 points while making five of his first seven shots against Washington State. He started off 2 for 7 Friday night as the entire offense struggled early against Oregon, then made 4 of 5 shots in the second half. The final of his 13 points came when he took a pass from Thomas, went behind the back with a dribble and soared for a mammoth, wind-milling dunk that made national highlight shows.
"I just saw it on ESPN right now," Ross said, laughing sheepishly while getting caught daydreaming at a TV screen during a postgame interview Friday night.
Ross said the change from coming off the bench - or not coming off it at all, as was the case when he played zero minutes seven days ago against USC in the regular-season finale - has him more into games.
"I pay a lot more attention, I am more focused and dialed in on the scout (report)," he said. "I've got to really know what I am doing."
Especially Saturday, when the 6-foot-6 guard will be asked to shut down an Arizona perimeter game that scorched the Huskies early in Tucson last month.
Ultimately, though, this Pac-10 title game will likely come down to a simple truth that defines most games UW plays: As Thomas goes, so go the Huskies.
As Isaiah's going pretty well right now.
"I'm just taking what the defense gives me," said Thomas, who got halftime advice from mentor Gary Payton on Friday to slow down offensively.
Asked if his team can win Saturday and in the NCAA tournament with a reliance on 3-point shooting that often drives Huskies fans batty, Thomas smiled and said, "Yeah, especially when we're making them like we did (Friday).
"When we're making our shots like that, we're a pretty tough team to beat."